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UK digital terrestrial TV turns 14 today

Freeview may be ten years old, but there's a gawky teenager peering over its shoulder

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In a bid to give the operation new vigour, Carlton and Granada relaunched ONdigital as ITV Digital in July 2001. The mix of the well-known ITV brand - which they didn’t own; it was applied to all the independent broadcasters, not all of them at that point owned by Carlton or Granada - and the overbid acquisition of what used to be called football League Division Two, Three and Four, plus a massive advertising campaign, would, they hoped, pull in the extra punters it needed to help it achieve profitability.

ONdigital changes to ITV Digital

Customers informed of the ONdigital to ITV Digital change
Source: ONhistory

By this point, ITV Digital in all its forms had burned through £800 million. In 1998, ONdigital forecast it would cost £350 million to break even. Two-and-a-half years on, profitability seemed as far off as ever - ITV was now looking to 2003, not 2002. It had 1.135 million subscribers.

The plan failed, and ITV Digital found itself unable to pay all of the money it hade agreed to cough up to the Football League for the broadcasting rights. Going into 2002, the service’s future looked uncertain. Investors in Carlton and Granada were unhappy. In a bid to cut costs, layoffs took place in February 2002. But at the end of March, the company went into receivership. The majority of its channels stopped transmitting at the beginning of May.

During the following months, claims began to be made that BSkyB had killed ITV Digital by engaging in a dirty tricks campaign. It was said to have encouraged its smartcard partner, NDS, to crack the code used by ITV Digital and to release it into the open, thereby encouraging the sale of under-the-counter ITV Digital access cards. Sky denied it, so did NDS and likewise other organisations and subsidiaries alleged to have taken part. A series of lawsuits begun by France’s Canal-Plus failed to show prima facie evidence to support the allegations, but they allowed ITV Digital to claim it had been lost £100 million to piracy.

As our own Andrew Orlowski has pointed out, though ONdigital complained at the time of its collapse that more than 100,000 counterfeit smartcards were then in circulation, its 1.3 million-strong subscriber base was dwarfed by Sky’s 5.7 million. An extra million customers wouldn’t have made much difference, and certainly not 100,000. No, piracy didn’t kill ITV Digital, poor content did.

Meanwhile, the BBC and Crown Castle, the UK wing of the US broadcasting infrastructure company, moved to acquire ITV Digital’s multiplexes. Crown would eventually be bought the company in charge of the nation’s power transmission infrastructure and would later be merged into Arqiva, which today owns and runs the UK’s network of terrestrial transmitters.

Game over for ITV Digital

Game over: ITV Digital shuts down
Source: DeeTeeTee

But in August 2002, Crown and the BBC founded Freeview to manage the multi-channel service that would broadcast on ITV Digital’s three multiplexes and the one already owned by the BBC. The Corporation got one of the three, Crown the remaining two.

From the start, Freeview would be a free-to-air service - punters would need just a set-top box or a integrated TV to pick it up - though there would be nothing to prevent pay-to-view services being transmitted too. Indeed, while ONdigital was a wholly owned service, a broadcaster in its own right, Freeview was and is a consortium of broadcasters. The failure of one won’t bring down the whole platform. Freeview would also host radio channels.

In October 2005, almost three years after Freeview began operating as a service, ITV, which had been assigned in 1997 a multiplex to share with Channel 4 and which it had not handed over to ITV Digital, joined Freeview. ITV soon bought Welsh-language broadcaster S4C’s subsidiary, SDN, which had been assigned the remaining multiplex. With it all six UK terrestrial digital TV multiplexes were now aligned to Freeview. ®

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